Journal article

Elevation-dependent influence of snow accumulation on forest greening

Rising temperatures and declining water availability have influenced the ecological function of mountain forests over the past half-century. For instance, warming in spring and summer and shifts towards earlier snowmelt are associated with an increase in wildfire activity and tree mortality in mountain forests in the western United States(1,2). Temperature increases are expected to continue during the twenty-first century in mountain ecosystems across the globe(3,4), with uncertain consequences. Here, we examine the influence of interannual variations in snowpack accumulation on forest greenness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, between 1982 and 2006. Using observational records of snow accumulation and satellite data on vegetation greenness we show that vegetation greenness increases with snow accumulation. Indeed, we show that variations in maximum snow accumulation explain over 50% of the interannual variability in peak forest greenness across the Sierra Nevada region. The extent to which snow accumulation can explain variations in greenness varies with elevation, reaching a maximum in the water-limited mid-elevations, between 2,000 and 2,600 m. In situ measurements of carbon uptake and snow accumulation along an elevational transect in the region confirm the elevation dependence of this relationship. We suggest that mid-elevation mountain forest ecosystems could prove particularly sensitive to future increases in temperature and concurrent changes in snow accumulation and melt.

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